Leroy's on the bus tonight. He rides often. Time passes like nobody's business when he's around. Tonight we're in spirited conversation, gesticulating like a couple of Italians. We pause as the next group of passengers boards.
"Hi," the male half of an incoming couple says. "We're homeless and don't have any money and we're trying to go to Seattle Central College 'cause it's a good safe place to sleep."
"Here, I'm gonna give you two transfers, just in case," I reply without a moment's pause. "Thank you for being honest."
Ten minutes later. Leroy mentioned the couple, now sitting in the back, and how he could feel for them. He's been there.
"You know what I just realized, or what's hitting me now?" I said.
"For them to ask us for a ride like that, the way they did, took a lot of courage."
"Yeah, for him to say, 'can we get a ride to Seattle Central because it's a good,'"
"'Good safe place to sleep,'"
"Yeah. Man. That takes some bravery."
"Especially 'cause you know the number of times they've probably been burned by other drivers who've said no, or been rude or something."
"That was outstanding. I'm glad it felt good enough in here, I mean I'm glad they felt comfortable enough to ask me."
"Oh man yeah, I feel for them."
"I wanna give them food or something. I still have another sandwich."
"You want me to take it back there?"
"That would be awesome."
"I'll give em the rest of my chips and queso."
"Oh, this'll be great. Tell 'em it's from us. And tell 'em this peanut butter sandwich is good, I don't mess around when I make that stuff!"
He returned from the back, saying, "I just told 'em it was all from you."
"Oh, you didn't have to do that! It was you too!"
"Aw naw man, I don't like taking credit for that."
"Dude, it was you who suggested it, man. Or maybe it was both of us. Anyways, Leroy, you are awesome. You are awesome!" I emphatically pounded the steering wheel. He's smiling into a laugh now. I continue, bent on making my point: "'Cause your reason for doing stuff like that is not to get a bunch of... you know how after Hurricane Katrina happened, and there's celebrities goin' down there to help, except they got a big camera crew following them around,"
"So everyone knows they're helping? It's such a bunch,"
"It's bullshit, man!"
"It is! I mean it's nice they're helping, yeah okay, but the whole camera crew being there changes the whole thing. They're just down there so people will see them down there. And when you be doin' this stuff without wanting any kinda recognition... oooooh, that warms my heart. Or, so hey, there was this supervisor at the base I ran into recently."
"He was taking, he was transporting one of those white supervisor vans up to North Base, but before taking it up there he was gonna wash the van and vacuum out the insides and everything. And here's the thing, he didn't have to do any of that. He was just supposed to transport the vehicle up to North Base."
"Yeah, he didn't have to do any of that, vacuuming,"
"Yeah, and here he was goin' out of his way– and the thing is, nobody probably would've noticed, no one was gonna know he took the extra time to clean it and everything. They're not gonna look inside at the floors. He only told me 'cause I asked him what he was doin'. And I thought, that is so awesome. He cares. What is it, conscience is how we behave when no one's watching?"
"Yeah it is. So anyways, thanks for bein' that way. That's beautiful!"
As we arrived at the College the couple came up to the front. I remember a driver telling me once, "when people come all the way up to the front door to leave the bus, you know you're doin' something right!"
"Hey, we wanted to thank you for the food," said the man.
"Oh my goodness of course." I doled out a few more phrases– it's the least I could do, I'm happy to help, et cetera– and stressed how good that sandwich is– but I can't take all the credit. "It's thanks in part to this gentleman here." Pointing to Leroy.
"Thank you," the man said again.
"I appreciate you guys being honest," I said.
"It's hard to find good people around, and you guys are it."
"Dude, thank you both, for being nice," I replied. "We are happy to help."
"Take it from someone who's been homeless," Leroy said, shaking their hands.
"Thank you," they said in return. The short phrase carried multitudes. The three of them stood there for a still second, frozen in understanding and appreciation.
Afterwards, Leroy exclaimed, "aw man, why you put it on me like that! 'This gentleman right here.' Shit!"
"Oh I got to! Hey man, you gotta take some of the credit! I can't sit here and say it was all me! You know what's amazing? They came all the way up here to say thank you."
"Of course. I told you they was goin' to!"
"And that guy was smiling, and you know, they probably feel a little bit better about people, about life right now, and it's because we went out of our way. And that good feeling may last in them for ten minutes, or one minute, or the rest of their lives, and we made that little tiny difference,"
"Little tiny difference,"
"Which is a huge accomplishment. Oh man, that was good."
"Yeah it was."
Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics.
So, every ten years the British Film Institute releases two top ten lists of the best films ever made– one list as chosen by film critics and scholars (generally academics with no filmmaking experience), and another list as chosen by directors (practitioners of the craft). The differences in the two resulting lists is always interesting. The first list focuses squarely on content, while the second takes form and aesthetic into more significant consideration. For this year's films, since I have worked as both a critic and a director, I'd like to offer something similar below. Here are two lists with brief comments on the films.
Ten Best Films of 2014
1. Birdman (Inarritu). Trailer.
My friend and I walked out of this ecstatic, convinced we'd seen the best expression on the creative dilemma since 8 1/2. While I wouldn't quite drop such rhapsodic superlatives now, there's no doubt this is one of the great achievements in the medium and something which will remain in the conversation for decades. The conversation between Keaton and the theatre critic is priceless, and like so many other scenes, says so much about the nature of artmaking, looking at art, and looking at the self– all through a lens at once comedic and thought-provoking. How do we define ourselves? Do we use the opinions of others to determine our self-worth? What is it we're chasing? Relevant questions for all. More of my thoughts on the film here.
2. Interstellar (Nolan). Trailer.
I wanted to write a review of this for the site upon its release but couldn't, because it resists parsing into words. Like Kubrick's 2001, it's an experience more than anything else. Nolan communicates a grand vision through an exhilarating series of images and sounds, taking advantage of the medium's ability to transcend mere language in how it gets through to us. The hefty runtime is dense with ideas and one-of-a-kind visuals, all anchored by a father-daughter relationship– this is what allows Nolan to rise above other sci-fi work; like Inception, the core of his films are not concepts, but probing, troubled human relationships we can all relate to. Bravo to Nolan for having all the female characters be intelligent engineers with things on their mind besides supporting men!
3. Ida (Pawlikowski). Trailer.
A nun about to take her vows discovers her parents were Jewish. Told largely through images instead of words, she embarks on a journey of considering different ways of living. Much more than another person's-faith-system-collapses movie; those are easier to accomplish than what Pawlikowski is doing here. To call lead actress Agata Trzebuchowska luminous would be an understatement. She lives the role quietly, trusting the camera to pick up on the subtle nuances. Similar to A Most Violent Year in its choice of portraying of a thoughtful, interior protagonist. A transcendent piece, and one of a kind– I urge you to check out the trailer, which offers a good idea of the experience of watching the film.
4. A Most Violent Year (Chandor). Trailer.
Most films are about extroverts, as the inherently exterior medium of film more easily communicates such a mindset. To encounter a film about a quiet man who thinks carefully before speaking or doing is a rare treat. One is reminded for this reason and others of Pacino's Michael Corleone in The Godfather, although the protagonist here has different ethical views. The film, which is not violent, is more than its trailer suggests. Isaac, playing the lead, is magnetic as a heating-oil businessman trying to get through New York City's most violent year (1981) without using violence. Chastain, as his wife, is aces as usual. Abel (Isaac) and Julian, the truck driver, are opposites in a way; one believes in himself, and the other doesn't, and they end up in very different places. A pitch-perfect evocation of the time period, and a gem of a screenplay, which contains nuggets of wisdom– or not– that you'll mull over for days.
5. Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, Wes). Trailer.
The "Happy Great Film" is rare. Most great films traffic in heavy subject matter, and wrestle with challenging themes which are not always pleasant. By contrast, most lighthearted films skimp on both substance and style. Anderson's work represents a meeting point, as they engage our minds and eyes while also leaving us feeling not just cathartic by the end, but terrific. The narrative is like much of Anderson's others– carefully constructed images and characters, drenched in artifice, such that we are blindsided by moments of unexpected emotional honesty. Though it is like his other films, it stands above them; he has fine-tuned every aspect of his approach into a science, and the ingredients blend perfectly here. There's a shot of Saoirse Ronan looking into the frame that destroys me.
6. Whiplash (Chazelle). Trailer.
A musician friend told me no film more accurately captures her experience studying music than this one– one of the more frightening statements I've heard. It's a chamber piece with a specific focus– the working relationship between a dedicated student and his brutal instructor. Both believe in sacrificing everything in the name of perfection, and the havoc and artistry this wreaks is the film's focus. Incredibly, the writing and performances are able to get us to sympathize with both sides of the coin: that the brutal, single-minded pursuit of perfection destroys lives, and also the only way to achieve said perfection.
7. Inherent Vice (Anderson, P. T.). Trailer.
The aura of melancholy pervading this film isn't a sad one, but rather a wistful sense of longing, a remembrance for a time when things were simpler. What a curious mixture of humor, whimsy, reflection, and the pangs of loss. In an interview Anderson recently suggested to Vice that the film is about a man pining for an old flame even as he knows they're not quite right for each other; who can't sympathize with that?
Like The Master, Anderson has offered something here which I'm sure will reveal itself over repeat viewings; I'm always disoriented after watching something immediately after reading the book upon which it was read (tip: don't finish reading Harry Potter IV, or Wuthering Heights, while standing in line for their respective films! Nothing else kills the experience quite so!). Inherent Vice is uncanny at replicating the act of reading Pynchon– you don't know what's going on, but each scene is compelling in its own right. There is a warmth which pervades Anderson's films, and I think it stems from how much he genuinely likes his characters, no matter their behavior.
8. Deux jours, une nuit (Two Days, One Night) (Dardenne Bros.). Trailer.
Most films are about either the very rich or the very poor; where are all the films about people who drive Honda Civics?
I'm pleased to see another portrait of the working class by the Dardennes. Sandra (Marion Cotillard) has two days to convince her coworkers to convince each of her coworkers to give up their bonuses so she can remain employed. This ranks among their best yet. The premise is basic but naturally relatable and compelling. This is the Dardennes' first time working with a name actor, and Cotillard shines as always. The performance is above all an excellent portrait of depression, and how it inhibits a person from taking action or otherwise believing in themselves. The camera achieves an artful artlessness, candid but professional, minimizing an emphasis on form, making us feel like we're there, walking alongside her as she goes from coworker to coworker, begging for her livelihood. However the film chooses to end would be a statement of sorts, and it couldn't conclude more perfectly. The final shot fills me with a deep, earned joy.
9. Mr. Turner (Leigh). Trailer.
In a year overflowing with hagiographies, this is by far the best. It's not a bloated birth-to-death piece, nor an infomercial of a biopic succumbing to "greatest hits" syndrome. It is simply us, the viewer, spending time with Turner, the great British painter, as he goes about his daily life. It doesn't let plot get in the way of film's great ability to transport us to someone else's present. The film is freed from the artifice of narrative, conflict and resolution. Basically we're just "hanging out with" Turner, as it were, as does things like buy paint and visit the countryside. What better way to get a sense of who a man is? I can think of no film more effective at situating us in a past time period. We're not told dates or facts about Turner's life; we just observe. Spall's performance is a career-best. The scene of the final preparations before the gallery opening is one of the more meaningful scenes I've come across as an artist, in its conveyance of what it feels like to make and share art in the company of others.
10. Foxcatcher (Miller). Trailer.
What a bizarre series of events. There's no other film quite like this one– Miller's previous entries don't prepare us for the atonal uncomfortableness which infuses the picture. Channing Tatum and Steve Carell give astonishing dramatic performances with apparent ease, at a level neither's career has prepared us for. The film offers no opinion of what it shows, but unlike American Sniper, which does the same, it seems greatly aware of its implications, and more thoughtfully considered.
Note: I have not seen Leviathan, Force Majeure, Nightcrawler, or Winter Sleep.
Ten Best Directed Films of 2014
1. Birdman (Inarritu). Trailer.
Okay, I guess there is a little overlap here. Inarritu's decision to design the film as one continuous shot transforms it into something else completely– a mobius strip of a movie, a gaze which never stops, but simply turns or glides on to something else, like life. As I've written elsewhere, the unbroken take is one of the last hallmarks of truth-telling in cinema, because it is so hard to fake. We watch in awe as these actors really do act their hearts out, make their marks, and all the rest for fifteen-plus minute stretches. Kristen Thompson once wrote that many of her favorite films turn out to be animated films, not because she prefers that medium, but because animated films require so much preplanning and design. There is no room for looseness or improvisation. According to Thompson, this level of attention generally results in great films. The same holds true for Birdman, because nothing could be cut out or otherwise fixed in editing– everything had to work during the moment it was shot and forever after. Lubezki seems headed to a second consecutive Oscar win (after last year's Gravity), and it will be richly deserved. The mobile, probing nature of the camera, the achingly rich and beautiful colors... I can't believe this small, idiosyncratic film has turned into the Oscar frontrunner. How rare it is, that the actual best film of the year wins best picture.
2. Gone Girl (Fincher). Trailer.
Fincher is such a consummate craftsman. He knows exactly what he wants, and he achieves his intention with a precise, skillful confidence that's exhilarating to watch. More thoughts of mine here.
3. Blackhat (Mann). Trailer.
Another exacting director who knows exactly what he wants to say, Michael Mann is once again in top form here, in another portrait of an introspective protagonist (it really is the year for that, isn't it?) involved in underworld crime, this time from the international cyberattack angle. Like any great director, but moreso, Mann's camera is where it is always for a reason, to tell us something further about the psychology of the characters. His lens is more subjective, often sharing in a character's perspective by looking from behind their head; the handheld compositions are at once loose and highly composed. All the characters are highly intelligent, educated adults, and this, in combination with Mann's penchant for avoiding exposition, make us lean forward. The jargon goes unexplained, and we're left to piece things together; the film expects a lot from the viewer, and for those who are up for it, it's quite a treat.
Mann maximizes the effect of silence; among my favorite moments is Hemsworth taking a moment alone, savoring the sensation of being out on the open tarmac after years of prison. Mann utilizes the digital camera to achieve things impossible with film– notice the depth of field and use of long lenses at night, the camera's ability to capture the magenta night sky and see into the dark corners. Mann is the Louis Sullivan of filmmakers– as Sullivan wasn't afraid to use exposed steel in buildings instead of disguising it as masonry like everyone else, Mann uses digital to do what only digital can do, and celebrates the medium, instead of trying to hide it and make it filmlike, thereby dooming it forever to being second-rate. Refer to this link for more thoughts on digital from the highly articulate director.
4. Inherent Vice (Anderson, P.T.). Trailer.
The content may have gone right over my head on first viewing, but the aesthetics didn't. It reads to me like a love letter to film– note the subtlety of colors, the skin tones and magic hour beach scenes, the grain jumping about, making the picture alive. Such things, as you know, warm my heart. Anderson's juggling of so many tones while maintaining a cohesive style linking it all is impressive. He makes the flat 1.85:1 frame, easily a visual bore, a thing of beauty. He takes the bold route of shooting many scenes in a single shot, often in a slow push-in, allowing us to take in the performances on a more pure, direct level.
5. Ida (Pawlikowski). Trailer.
You can't not notice the unusual use of the square 1.33:1 frame. I find it limiting to use, preferring scope myself, but Pawlikowski gets so much mileage out of it, offering composition after composition of startling and thought-provoking grace. It may only be eighty minutes, but each minute says so much. The black-and-white only heightens the beauty of the images, while also reflecting Anna's stark lifestyle. When all the elements are in place, and everything is so finely tuned that the simple two word phrase– "and then?"– has the impact that it does, well, that's great direction. I'm convinced that Ida makes her decision during the moment that phrase is uttered.
6. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Anderson, Wes). Trailer.
Another rare use of 1.33:1. Anderson uses that ratio during the portions of the film when that ratio would have been in use, and resorts to his more customary 2.35:1 during the few sections that occur later, during the sixties. He seems to be moving beyond his schtick of sideways tracking shots recording action moving parallel to the picture plane (though I have no complaints against just that). There is a real economy to the editing here, as the jokes reel off the actor's tongues in perfectly timed moments. The square frame, despite its natural claustrophobic tendencies, is able to take in the opulent vastness of the titular hotel with no difficulty under Anderson's gaze. The set and costume design are also worthy of note, spilling over with pink and red; a feast for the eyes.
7. Interstellar (Nolan). Trailer.
Nolan has said he shoots on film not out of nostalgia, but because it generates a better image. I agree. The greater tonal range and resolution are in abundant evidence here, particularly when viewed on 70mm (for you numbers hounds, 70mm film approximates 18k lines of resolution in digital, as opposed to 2k lines or the high-end 4k digi cameras). Nice strong compositions and classic rule of thirds in the wide scope frame; he chooses to use the IMAX cameras not just for moments of obvious visual beauty (the wormhole, the new planets), but also for emotional moments of equal import (leaving the daughter) and even for difficult handheld work (driving through the cornfield). His commitment to getting the best possible imagistic experience to the viewer is unparalleled. I also marvel at his ability to communicate. How is it that Nolan, without using dialogue, is able to get across that we have just passed through a wormhole, though he doesn't know you or I, and we've never done that ourselves and don't know what it would look like?
8. Whiplash (Chazelle). Trailer.
For a 107 minute film about people in rooms yelling or banging on pieces of leather and metal, Chazelle makes the most of it. Lots of narrow depth of field, and great staccato editing during the drumming sequences, particularly during the finale, which is one of the better recent movie endings I'm aware of. He doesn't make unmotivated camera moves. Also, a note on the performances. Simmons is not just excellent because of how intense he is; look at how he plays the sympathetic moments as well– the monologue at the end, the moment with the child early on. A fully dimensional character. As for Miles Teller, I'm reminded of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. He was new, untested in such a demanding role, not attractive... and supremely talented. Teller's performance is one for the ages. That's his actual blood on the drums. I imagine we'll see a lot of him as the years wear on.
9. A Most Violent Year (Chandor). Trailer.
Chandor is not afraid to go for some serious understatement. He lets the silences and quiet exchanges speak for themselves, not interfering with the camera; he favors a locked down frame here, a la Fincher, observing the proceedings with a precision not unlike that of the protagonist's. Chandor uses a scope frame even for this intimate story, lending it a greater visual gravitas than it would otherwise have. I'm partial to the muted blue-green-yellow color scheme, and the expansive use of the wide frame– people on either end, Abel dominating the compositions, arrangements which tell us whose in control; clean, classic, and unwatchable in anything besides the original aspect ratio.
10. Transformers (Bay). Trailer.
Don't watch this movie. Please. Don't watch it unless you're an cinematographer, editor, or, uh, a teenage boy. People underestimate the skill necessary to achieve the shots Bay manages here and elsewhere. In the way that Nic Cage simply likes working, seemingly regardless of the material, I get the impression Bay doesn't care about content, but just likes to shoot, and shoot he does. Forget the numbingly abysmal narrative; this is a return to the days of early silent cinema, when the medium was in its birth, and people would go to projection houses to watch footage of things like trains flying toward the screen and babies swimming. "It is a visual and therefore, a visceral, betrayal," John Malkovich says in a scene from Transformers 3, clearly revealing Bay's belief to the power of the image. Note also in this film the loving mentions of motion picture film and references to classic films like Paris, Texas.
The compositions are dynamic in the extreme, pushing the possibilities of the frame, steeped in color and movement; the editing is positively electric, with kinetic motion flows juxtaposed with every new shot. His camera, like that of Max Ophuls, basically never stops moving, and to witness this or his magnum opus, Bad Boys II (shot on film), is to take part in an achingly beautiful visual ballet, impeccably crafted, with a level of skill all the more noticeable when applied to such completely bloated, vacuous content. I used to edit films with Bay movies playing on a monitor off to one side, as inspiration for photographic and editing possibilities. Again, it's an acquired taste. I think I'm the only person to have Transformers on my shelf, right next to my depressing Swedish movies from the sixties. I encourage you not to waste your time on it– unless you're curious, or one of the three categories mentioned above!
Thoughts on 2014's other major (and a few not so major) releases.
Image courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
I'm doing shorter, more bite-sized writeups of films this year– a number of various projects are reaching out for my time. In a moment I'll post my thoughts on the best films. Here are some ruminations on a few other of 2014's movies being talked about (or not) right now, as we head into the Oscars:
Thoughts on the Nominations (besides those mentioned in my top ten, in the next post)
American Sniper (Eastwood). Trailer.
There are many excellent war films. If they didn't exist, American Sniper could be considered great, but the fact that there are pictures far more accomplished and powerful in their depiction of the inhumanity of war and its lasting damage on the people who take part in it renders this one minor in importance. Chris Kyle had a simplistic view of war, and by extension so does this movie; however, I can't help but think it's a crime to perpetuate the idea that the US went to war with Iraq because of 9/11. Hopefully people know by now things were a little more complex. Additionally, the ending is so ripe for irony and meaning, and the film, made so soon after the events (and before Kyle's murderer had even gone on trial) render some significant dramatic possibilities a complete moot point. As well, knowing some veterans, I find it insulting that a film would suggest that one can get over one's PTSD with relative timeliness and return to family life after a short, unspecified time frame. Eastwood has made more challenging, thought-provoking, and visually strong films than this (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Letters From Iwo Jima). As for the argument that Sniper still stands as a great you-are-there documentation of what it feels like to be at war, look no further than Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down for something crafted several levels of magnitude higher, particularly that second hour, which takes place in real time.
Selma (Duvernay). Trailer.
An important film, and incredibly, the first film to feature Dr. King as the main character. We forget that the Civil Rights movement was a triumph of the middle-class; Dr. King and his associates were educated men living generally comfortable lives, and who had the means and the passion to get something done. I hope similar strides can be made in the future. Ms. Duvernay directs capably, eliciting powerful performances all around and maximizing the impact of harrowing moments without resorting to the R rating– this will be shown in schools for decades. She lets Mr. Oyelowo really go for it on those speeches, to the film's benefit– King's great skill was his oratory, and it shines here. Duvernay explores the complexity of organizing such marches, including internal conflicts between different civil rights groups– all very fascinating. King's marriage to Coretta is given ample screentime, and the moment where she addresses his adultery is a masterclass in effective understatement. Not as powerful nor as aesthetically accomplished as McQueen's Twelve Years a Slave (nor as unremittingly brutal, simply because of the different content), but nevertheless a valuable contribution. These are films all Americans would benefit from seeing.
Boyhood (Linklater). Trailer.
It's unfair to accuse this film of the whole "if you take out the twelve years thing, it's just okay" angle. You can't separate the two. The "whole twelve years thing" is the film. I take issue rather with the execution of some of the scenes. I found the dinner argument with the stepfather less than convincing, and no doubt the moment in the restaurant regarding the Latino worker who is now a student was very affecting in life, but in the scene it plays like a TV movie, in that it doesn't seem told from a specific perspective. From whose viewpoint are we seeing the event? If that of the son, why doesn't the camera reflect that? This is where you really want the subjective camera of someone like Michael Mann or Scorsese. Linklater is a great observer of life, but there were times when I wanted more or different handling. It may also be that I simply had a very different childhood than what's portrayed, and also that I went into the movie aware of its unheard-of 100 metascore. I went in expecting sliced bread, and instead had to settle for merely a very good film!
The Imitation Game (Tildum). Trailer.
A classic prestige picture– the mid-level budgeted fourth quarter piece, usually based on historical material, with an eye for awards consideration. It's a good one, and a piece of history worth telling, but it's quite digestible and soft around the edges. I found nothing overtly flawed, but nor was I blown away as I was by other films. Mr. Cumberbatch, always enjoyable to watch at work, finds just the right line between being utterly annoying and entirely compelling.
The Theory of Everything (Marsh). Trailer.
The least successful of this year's hagiographies for me. It benefits from being told largely from Jane Hawking's perspective (it's based on her book), and from two truly terrific lead performances, but after a while I can only take so much saint-making. There is also the issue of believability regarding the passage of time; I am simply unable to accept the leads as anything other than people in their twenties. Slightly better photographed than one would expect, however; the vivid colors gives life to the story of a very sedentary protagonist.
Not Great, but Worth Mentioning
Begin Again (Carney). Trailer.
I am filled with a feeling of warmth upon completing this film. It takes a more realistic look at love, family, and friendship than many similar works, and thus feels more worthwhile to sit through. Films about friendships (as opposed to romances) are rare enough; here is one about two friends who allow each other to find their respective ways in life, as they work through very different problems while taking inspiration from working on the same creative musical project.
Ed Norton once spoke (in Seattle!) about how what he likes seeing most in performances are extemporaneous moments in acting, where the actors appear to be experiencing the emotions of the character during that moment and react accordingly. There are several such moments in Begin Again, which are all the more affecting for not using dialogue. I love moments in films where characters take time to think– this is more rare than one might imagine (think Sam Jackson in the car in Jackie Brown, silently putting together the plot).
An example of moments of characters thinking extemporaneously in Begin Again is when Keira Knightley silently realizes that her boyfriend has had an affair, simply by watching to how he listens to a certain song. Another is when Knightley approaches her friend on the street who is at first excited to see her, notes her emotional state, and runs forth to offer a hug. To witness such thoughts happening in action feels special. Knightley reminds me of the great silent movie actresses with her expressiveness. Sure, she may not be the greatest actress of her generation, but she more than gets the job done in her own highly effective way.
A Most Wanted Man (Corbijn). Trailer.
No recent actor or filmmaker's death haunts me so like that of Mr. Hoffman, who was just hitting the prime of his career. He would have easily had another decade of stellar performances had he lived. We are left instead with this achingly affecting final parting gift, whose themes and ending are all the more powerful when we consider who's in that lead role. He wears an infectious accent that sounds like it comes from a country not yet discovered; he slumps and sloughs through the film, acting his socks off with apparent ease. It's a spy film, about people with binoculars and fake names and meetings in shipyards at night and all the rest, but there's an undercurrent of loneliness pervading the film that lends a gravitas one might not expect from a genre piece. Rachel McAdams is very effective in a supporting role. Corbijn isn't afraid to really go there with the ending, which is just searingly brutal– not graphically, but emotionally. He makes his point, and with force. Brilliant. I don't know why this isn't on my top ten list.
Under the Skin (Glazer). Trailer.
Like nothing you've seen before, except perhaps 2001: A Space Odyssey. The moments where Scarlett Johansson approaches men on the street with her huge white van were real, done with men who didn't know it was a film. The climax is one of the great jaw-dropping 'wow' moments I've ever had in a film (Side note: my friend and I were the only ones in the theatre, at the now defunct Harvard Exit. Did I take advantage of this rare opportunity to stand for an entire film? You bet!).
The Interview (Rogen, Goldberg). Trailer.
I found this to be highly amusing, while also being very aware of the gravity of the nature of what it was depicting. The inclusion of a sympathetic North Korean character is meaningful, and the depiction of Mr. Un is more sympathetic than expected, and certainly not as one-dimensional as North Korea's depiction of the United States. Appropriately irreverent, and cleverly constructed.
Exodus: Gods and Kings (Scott). Trailer.
If nothing else, it's a series of stupendously marshaled painterly images, from one of the most visually capable directors of our time. Initially just called Exodus, but retitled to avoid lawsuits regarding a highly suspect litigation issue pertaining to the Paul Newman film of the same name– Fox would've easily won the case, since titles can be used on multiple films as long as one can't prove the title was chosen to latch onto the earlier film's market, and these two have nothing to do with each other, but never mind– Exodus: Gods and Kings worked for me. As soon as you get over the Caucasian casting in Egyptian roles (necessary for financing reasons), and the use of the English language (same reason), the film works very well as a creative take on the classic Jewish tale.
Ridley Scott goes for the grounded approach, creating a world that feels cohesive and lived-in even when playing fast and loose with facts (having chariots and pyramids in the same scene is, as Kristin Thompson writes, "sort of like William the Conqueror checking his email to see how preparations for his invasion of Britain were going." Read more of Thompson's fascinatingly detailed– but largely sympathetic– exploration of the film's deviations here. As an emotional journey, however, the telling of a questioning man's developing his own belief system is moving on multiple levels, religion put completely aside. Doesn't it feel good to feel sure about something? We end on a man in room alone, with just him and his beliefs. He has arrived at a brief but felt peace.
The Better Angels (Edwards). Trailer.
Staggeringly beautiful series of images realized by one of Malick's assistant directors– give that trailer a whirl! Very Malick-like, but lacking in the depth of substance Malick always brings. Let's just say you can tell Mr. Edwards hasn't translated Heidegger or taught at Oxford, as Malick has, but he sure does know his way around a camera, and shares many of Malick's interests– man's relationship to nature, the transition of love from one figure to another upon the loss of the former, and tough father-son relationships.
Love is Strange (Sachs). Trailer.
Most films about relationships are actually just about the beginnings of relationships; we know in life that there's a lot more, and it can get complex. This film, about an older couple in their sixties (John Lithgow and Alfred Molina) explores the dilemmas of life and love in the twilight years. Impeccably acted. I liked everything but the final scene, which doesn't involve the main characters and feels tacked on and false. Don't let that depreciate your estimation of all that has come before, though. I once spoke that we'll know we've hit a milestone when a black actor is cast in lead role that's not about being black; we've got there. In films like Man on Fire, I am Legend, or Seven Pounds, Denzel and Will Smith are black and nobody in the movie cares. Another milestone awaits, where the main character of a large film is gay, and that's not what the film is about. Love is Strange is that film, albeit on a small scale.
That guy is sleeping on the cement again, next to the comfort station at the Rainier Beach terminal. What food do I have, I think, cycling through what I brought for dinner. Today it's cinnamon swirl bread. I grab the loaf from my bag and walk over there.
After he nods in greeting from his prone position I say, "hey, you want some cinnamon bread?" I look at the package, reading off the official name. "Soft Cinnamon Swirl?"
"Aw naw, I don't go in for bread."
"Oooohhh," I reply in disappointment. "There I was, thinkin' I had somethin' for ya!"
"Yeah, people be givin' me peanut butter jelly all the time at the Mission, can't tell you how many folks come by wit' bread, rolls, buns, but I just cain't go for it."
"Shoot." To be homeless and wheat-intolerant all at once– shoot indeed.
"I'll take it," says a voice, seated nearby. "I'll take some bread."
This man is younger, shivering on the bus stop bench with his arms inside his sweatshirt and the whites of his chocolate brown eyes contrasting against the black night all around us. He seems like one who doesn't speak up much, but the situation here has compelled him to be heard.
"Oh, cool," I respond as I walk over to him. To be too reverential might strike one as pity, which I try to avoid; the better to talk to him simply as another peer, helping out without too much emotion and no great expectation of gratitude. "This is good," I tell him. "It's got cinnamon. It's my dinner though, so I gotta keep the rest, but here."
"Thanks," he mutters.
I say goodnight to our friend on the ground and step into the bathroom.
In the comfort station I think to myself, I don't need all these. I'll be off in three hours. Why am I even eating this stuff? Soft Cinnamon Swirl bread? I'm usually the guy chomping on things like lettuce and kale and spooning out rice and beans!
Stepping out, I ask him, "Hey, you want some more?"
"Oh yeah," he says in his quiet voice. "You right, this stuff is pretty good."
"Yeah. it's awesome. Nice." I load him up, taking out two slices for myself.
"Always. Have a good night!"
I walk away, both of us smiling to ourselves, enjoying the taste of the same food, the delicate flavor of cinnamon against the cold night, and the sensation of being acknowledged as an equal, considered and loved, unjudged and cared about.
He's the younger guy with the fro cut to look like he's wearing a pair of headphones.
If it was ever a fashion, it came and went quickly, but I suppose this young man wears it as well as one can. Our discussion starts by my asking if there's another 7 right in front of us or not. It's just so quiet on my bus; we're deep into Saturday night and no one's out here. The city's unpredictable, we agree, or to use his words, "hella weird, man..."
"The weather, the people,"
"Yup. S'pos'ta be crowded, then fuhggin nobody nowhere,"
"It's like the Twilight Zone out here. Feels like I'm doin' somethin' wrong!"
I'm trying to gauge if he wants to keep talking. What is there to lose, I think, asking him if he's always lived in Seattle.
"Born and raised. Well, mostly rural Washington mostly. Fife, Sumner." We discuss his background and mine, and my being part Korean.
Now he's pontificating on girls he likes. He frames people by type, considering people in categories of race. He is to Filipino girls as Aristaeus lusted after Eurydice– hungry and filled with longing. He's telling me how a trip to the southern United States is necessary when searching for "them rrreal black girls," as the ones he's encountered here don't quite stir his fancy– or rather, "they don't got they muhfuggin' head right. You gotta go down souf." If I have anything to say about it, the man has a lot more African-American women to meet in the greater Seattle area before arriving at such horrendously broad conclusions! But I'm here to listen. He waxes poetic on an earlier, simpler time involving himself and his "fitty hoes," in a mini-narrative right out of The Arabian Nights.
An overweight Caucasian gentleman seated several rows back has been listening. As if Aristaeus has only just mentioned rural Washington, he hollers out:
"Fife! You must know Graham then!"
"Yeah, I know Graham!" says Aristaeus.
I listen as they bond over how they used to play on competing teams. They conclude with confidence that nothing surpasses playing high school sports while simultaneously smoking marijuana. For my part, I'm happy to see him conversing with a white person, as he had made some frustrated remarks on the subject earlier (read: "tired of them muthafuckin' white folks keep sayin' we all muthafuckin' hustlers, all criminals." "Perpetuatin' the lie," I translated. "Yeeeah," he said, approving the translation).
At the stop underneath I-90 I notice a man outside whom I recognize, standing listless under the sodium vapor lamps. I yell out his name– "Traaan! Heeyy!"
Next to Tran is another man who also recognizes me, and yells a hello himself. Neither wants the bus, but they're excited– two tattered, filthy, Dostoyevskian figures lurking in the shadows, wearing the most luminous smiles... I love this job, I think to myself. The second man, about twenty feet away from the doors, half-heartedly shouts a request for a transfer, to which I say, "next time, my friend, next time I gotchu!"
We all wish each other well. I drive away smiling to myself.
Aristaeus, who witnessed the interaction in silence, says, "man, you cool as fuck!"
"Just a little!" I say in response, making the relevant gesture with my thumb and forefinger.
"Naw man, you are. What are you, Colombian?"
I laugh. "Korean!"
"Oh that's right, you said that like five times. Usually it's a bunch a racist muhfuggas."
"I try to make up for those guys!"
"Well. You're doin' it." Two elderly African-American women seated next to him concur. "Thank you," they say. "We appreciate that."
However, Aristaeus is bubbling over in a way they are not. He rises, saying, "whuus yo name?"
"Nathan, Jeremiah." We shake hands. He declares, in a voice pitched as if I were thirty feet away, "I'm 'bout to go make babies with my girlfriend tonight, and I'ma name my new baby Nathan!"
"Wow. Wow! That's an honor!"
"I'm feelin' you tonight, man."
"I'm inspired!" He steps off the bus, glowing.
Did he just say that? "Now that I have not heard before!" I quip, after he's gone. The old ladies crack up.
Something about all this compels the overweight fellow from further back to shout, "Hey! Can you apply for McDonalds online?"
Take it all in stride– "I'm not a hundred percent sure, but yeah, I think you can! I'm gonna say yes!"
"You thinkin' about lookin' into it?"
"Yeah, I's thinkin' about getting a job again. I need to do somethin' with my life."
"Yeah, might be all right. Little bit a extra money on the side."
I continue gently inspiring him. Just pretend it's normal, all of this, to be yelling between the front of the bus and the middle of the bus about McDonalds versus Jack in the Box. I propose applying while also tactfully suggesting not eating fast food every day. He's on board with both counts.
"You got me feelin' talkative tonight!" he yells, turning to the person next to him– a demure elderly woman– and asking how much she thinks he weighs. He stands up to give her a better picture to guess from. "I bet you think I'm two fifty." They're discussing nutrition and weight fluctuation now, two people who couldn't seem less alike, deep in earnest conversation. "I used to be one seventy five, but I max out at two eighty!"
The wheels on the bus, turning ever onward...
For No Reason
After he asks for and receives a transfer at Henderson, the end of the line, this kid pauses, asking me, "how's your night goin'?"
It's almost an afterthought. He's got everything he needs. He doesn't have to butter me up or be friendly to get his transfer anymore. No, he's just curious, seeing me as a fellow young person, working on this project called life, and he's inquiring out of nothing more or less than genuine human interest.
"It's goin' GREAT! Thanks for askin'!"
"Haha," he says, sharing in the glow of my enthusiasm. "Keep it up." He offers a fistpound. "Yeeeeah," he adds, almost to himself, walking off happier than he was before.
Later, at Rainier and Bayview:
"How you doin' tonight?" I ask this newcomer, a man in his early twenties.
Excellent word choice, I'm thinking. "Oh, wow! That's great!"
"I just got a delicious Subway* sandwich–" holding up the goods– "from a lovely young Mexican lady who works at the Subway over there. And I got my coffee,"
"What could be better?"
"I know, RIGHT?"
His enthusiasm is infectious. What could be better, indeed. "That sounds fantastic."
"I don't get to speak Spanish very often, but when I do, and when it's with a lady as lovely as that girl over there, well, it feels PRETTY GOOD."
"But she asked me if I go to church, as many of them will do, and,"
"Had to tell her the truth,"
"I had to tell her that I don't,"
"Gotta tell the truth,"
"That's good of you."
"It is what it is."
"But you know, I'm sure you made her night better,"
"Yeah, I told her she was very beautiful and she blushed and smiled, so what more could I ask for?"
"What more could you ask for!" We say the phrase practically in unison. "Exactly!"
Just that glimmer of connection, of the acknowledgement that we're all in this together, and we appreciate each other. It's enough to keep anyone going.
*Don't you love that he wasn't getting a burger at McDonalds? In this post I write, "Everywhere but within the US, a homeless overweight person would be an oxymoron; homelessness inside and outside this country are very different experiences."
The last part of that sentence stems from my experiences abroad, which offered a perspective of such abject horrors as to remind me that, by contrast, homeless populations within urban US cities live like kings. It isn't even a comparison. I realize how insensitive that might initially sound, but truly, we have no idea how good we have it here.
Regarding obesity and the homeless– yes, 1 in 3 homeless are obese, like the rest of America. Of course, weight does not equal wealth; healthy food is generally more expensive, and fast food is often strategically more readily available in impoverished areas, where produce is often of lower quality. Crime, traffic, and unsafe playground equipment reduce opportunities for exercise, and lower-class populations statistically experience greater stress levels, sleep deprivation and more. Further facts and reading here and here.
This was right after the big game concluded. The entirety of the city, in its best effort to impersonate a small town, seemed genuinely despondent, and who could blame them? Months of fever-pitch anticipation, with no climax. I was feeling a touch heavy myself, but for unrelated reasons.
"How's your night goin'?" I asked somebody.
"Oh, quiet. Just goin' home," he said. In his thirties, getting off at Broadway and Harrison.
"That's good, keepin' it mellow."
"Yeah, I just wanna get inside. Everyone out here's so bummed out!"
"Yeah, you can feel it! Like the whole city's depressed!"
"Too much of a bummer, man!"
"We all need to go home and eat ice cream!"
He laughed. "Yeah, that's basically what I was gonna,"
"It's like we've all just been dumped! Time to get away from all this mess!"
In a way I find the loss more thought-provoking, like a great film whose bitter aftertaste of an ending forces you to discuss it. I listened to conversations on the stoops of my neighbors' houses, listened to hugs and cackles of riders as they talked it out, searching for new perspectives and reconsidering their own. These conversations were longer and more probing than they would have been after a winning game.
Elsewhere, a group of four or five twenty-somethings, girls and boys all, were dominating the landscape at Fourth and Pike, howling in high spirits. They all had jerseys and that ruddy complexion which comes from drinking too much. Definitely not sober, this contingent. Paying fare was not part of their headspace as they boarded, though upon entering they politely stuffed their drug paraphernalia in their jacket pockets. The lead fellow, of scrawnier build but with no less of a voice, bellowed at his captive audience with wild, joyous abandon.
"SEA," he roared, and the tumult was returned, first by just a few, then by many:
"SEA," he hollered, with a stentorian, naked masculinity that would've done a Roman legion proud;
"SEA," reaching deep in the throats of our earlier selves, harkening back to a time of chants and guttural clamor;
And so on.
You would've thought they'd won the game.
This group had been riling up the crowd even before they boarded, and in their Bacchanalian fervor was also the romantic pang of loss, of the knowledge that events have happened which can't be turned back. But their vigorous, scrappy exuberance did not arise from denial. "Don't get down!" somebody screamed at somebody else, by way of explanation. "We still love the Seahawks even when they lose!"
In their profuse, inebriated, Dionysian exhilaration they understood the point of getting excited about such things in the first place. The ultimate intention of fandom in sports is not to win games. The ultimate, end-all, be-all is to be able to turn to the person next to you, a stranger apparently nothing like yourself, and to know the two of you have something in common. One doesn't need football to figure that out, but sports nonetheless serve as a straightforward and manifest reminder that we are as one. It's a reminder all the more potent for existing outside of education and status.
The parade is not exciting because of the win, but because of the chance to revel in the idea of humanity as a collective, to live in that warm hum of togetherness. It's there ever and always, but it more easily rises out of latency when organized around something literal. The scrawny drunk kid and his friends, above, may not have looked smart, but they were. They innately grasped what mattered. You don't need the parade or the win. You just need other people.